“Bastard!” I screamed, relieved to discover my lungs still worked. “What the hell are you doing?”
He dropped me on the bed. I felt a tug on my arm as he knotted the leather tie around my wrist, keeping the spelled crystal against my skin, and I could do nothing to stop him. My body wouldn’t move, my limbs numb and heavy.
I seethed, using anger to combat the squirming panic in my gut. How stupid was I? He’d misled me with nothing more than a smoldering stare while sneaking a spell off the rack behind me—and I’d fallen for it, hook, line, and sinker.
Returning to the crystals, Zak surveyed his collection. A rippling movement from the corner stole my attention, and my next insult died on my tongue as the huge black eagle unfurled her wings. The fae sprang off the perch and flew across the room, her feathers sweeping wide as she reached Zak’s back.
Instead of landing on him, the fae’s phantom body sank into his. Her wings settled across his shoulders and arms, darkening into bold tattoos.
Selecting an acid-green crystal, he sat on the edge of the bed and dangled the stone above my face, his emerald eyes eerily bright with the power of the fae inside him.
I wheezed pathetically, my arms and legs twitching.
“I think it’s time,” he said quietly, dark tattoos edging his jaw and giving his face a malevolent cast, “for you to tell me everything. And this spell will ensure you’re properly forthcoming.”
All I could do was glare in furious terror as he pressed the crystal against my throat and uttered the incantation.
I was a gullible idiot, and I had no excuse. Give me a mysterious, gorgeous, so-powerful-it-was-arousing mythic with a fierce sense of justice and a soft spot for dragon babies, and I was happy to jump to ridiculous conclusions. I’d convinced myself he was a not-so-bad guy who was only a danger to really bad guys.
In actuality, he was a not-so-bad guy who was a danger to anyone he considered a threat. And I’d made myself into a nice big threat not only to him, but to everyone he protected. And he was having none of it.
I told him everything.
My whole life story, and then some, spilled out of my mouth, prompted by his sharp questions. I couldn’t stop myself. The crystal artifact resting on my throat pulsed with a strange heat, and the urge to answer his questions was irresistible. I wanted to tell him everything, even as a small part of my brain screamed at me to stop.
He watched me blather with merciless eyes. I was his enemy now.
He extracted the tale of how I’d come to work at the Crow and Hammer, and I blurted all sorts of private thoughts he had no business knowing. Like how the guild felt akin to home, and how I was terrified of losing my place there once my paperwork went through. Like my confusing feelings for Aaron and the way my hardcore crush on him was being eroded by doubts. Like my secret fears about Ezra—the repressed savagery I’d glimpsed in him, the hints of an inner darkness I didn’t understand.
Zak questioned me thoroughly about our plans for capturing him and rescuing Nadine, then backtracked to my past—asking questions about my family. About my father. About things I never talked about. Things I’d buried deep. But the spell forced me to answer, to tear through my mental barricades and unleash the long-ago memories on my psyche.
Finally, Zak stopped asking questions. With the spell still tied to my arm, I lay motionless, my breath hitching as I choked back tears. I’d cried in front of him, and the shame burned my soul.
He stared thoughtfully across the room, unaffected by my emotional state. Cold-hearted bastard.
“I need to save Nadine,” I said hoarsely. “Since you aren’t kidnapping anyone, I don’t care what you do. I would’ve promised to never speak about your secrets, and I would’ve kept my word.”
He glanced at my throat where the artifact pulsed against my skin. “I can’t accept that promise.”
“Not everyone is a liar,” I spat. “If you can’t trust me, then use a spell or something. I’ll swear whatever magical oaths you want, just let me go so I can help Nadine!”
Plus, I needed to leave before he decided to kill me, but I didn’t say that. The circumstances under which he’d let me live on his ranch as one of his wards were long gone.
“You would swear a magical oath?” His gaze shifted over my face. “Even a black-magic one?”
“Even if breaking the oath meant death?”
“Yes.” Wasn’t like my chances of survival were all that great anyway.
He considered me for several long moments. “If you submit to a binding oath, I’ll let you go. You will never speak about me for as long as you live, and if you so much as utter a word, you’ll die—and it will be a gruesome death.”
Cold chilled my limbs, but I gathered my determination. “I only need to be able to talk about Nadine.”
Nodding, he lifted the green crystal off my throat, then pulled the other one—a fat ruby red crystal—off my arm. As soon as it broke contact with my skin, strength flooded into my limbs. I resisted the urge to curl up in a defensive ball and instead shoved myself upright.
Standing, Zak crossed to a table and dropped the crystals on the corner before picking up a thick leather tome.
Swallowing back the sick taste in my mouth, I crawled off the bed. The door wasn’t far, but there was no point in running. Even if I made it downstairs before he stopped me—which I doubted I could manage—where would I go? I was still trapped in the valley.
He perused one page after another, and I minced close enough to peer at the book’s contents. Complex transmutation circles, marked with notations and instructions in tiny text, filled every page.
“Don’t know this one by heart?” I muttered sarcastically.
“I’ve never had the occasion to use it before.”
“What if you mess it up?”
“I imagine you’ll die.”
My stomach dropped. As I waited silently, he studied the instructions in the grimoire, then collected supplies from around the room. Uncovering a stick of chalk, he strode to the room’s open center, where a perfect white circle had been painted on the floor. With confident strokes, he marked runes in geometric arrangements around the perimeter and drew crisscrossing lines through the center.
Nerves tightened my gut as he arranged several bottles with different liquids around the circle and added bundles of herbs. Then he placed a bowl with incense sticks at the northern point and lit them with a lighter. Smoke curled toward the ceiling.
As he crossed the room and opened a low cupboard, my gaze jumped to the table. The crimson and green crystals lay where he’d left them. Checking that his head was still in the cupboard, I swiped the crystals off the table and shoved them into my bra. I really needed to put pants on.
I was just tugging my shirt—er, his shirt—straight when he emerged with a white bowl in his hand.
“Sit in the center of the circle,” he ordered.
Reluctantly, I stepped into the white ring. Careful not to touch any of the lines, I moved to the center and sat cross-legged. He passed me the bowl, added a splash of clear liquid from a small flask, then shifted to a spot behind me.
“Are you ready?”
Clutching the bowl, I nodded.
He began the incantation, incomprehensible words flowing in his deep, husky voice. The white lines and runes glowed eerily, and shivering power trickled through me. Colored mist rose in strange patterns from the various bottles and smoke puffed from the dried herbs.
Zak paused his incantation and switched to English. “Repeat after me: I swear on my life I will not communicate in any way anything I saw, heard, learned, or guessed about the druid called the Ghost since waking up in this valley.”
I repeated the words, my voice quavering.
“I will not speak of, imply, intimate, or reveal the existence of this oath or the spell that binds me to it.”
Fighting the sick fear in my stomach, I repeated that too.
“If I break this oath, willingly, accidentally, or through coercion, I forfeit my life.”
Once I’d spoken the final words, he uttered the last phrase of the incantation. Light flashed and the swirling colored smoke coiled into a single plume that sank into the bowl I held. The porcelain heated in my hands, then violet light burst from within it.
Zak strode around the circle to stand in front of me. “Drink the potion to seal the binding.”
A small amount of purple liquid filled the bowl. Hands shaking, I lifted the edge to my lips and sipped. Sweetness bloomed across my tongue, taking me by surprise. Sure didn’t taste like a gruesome black-magic binding potion.
I poured the liquid into my mouth and swallowed hastily. Zak checked I’d finished it, then took the bowl.
“It’s done. Do not forget, Tori. If you speak about me or this place even by accident, that’s it for you.” His cold eyes scoured me. “And don’t try to trick your way around the oath. It won’t work.”
I nodded numbly. “Can I leave now?”
Peering around the room, I mumbled, “How? How do I get home?”
“If you want to help Nadine, I suppose you should return immediately.” He headed for the door. “Let’s go.”
I scrambled up, flinching as the hidden crystals in my bra dug into my skin. Before following him, I darted into the bathroom and retrieved my Queen of Spades card from the pocket of my blood-stained jeans. It had survived without a spot on it.
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